Chasing the Close Encounter with Outer Space: Hunting Meteorite Fragments in Livingston, WI

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This is still a big damn deal in Southern Wisconsin. People cannot get tired of talking about it, or at least, mentioning it in the local media. No, I didn’t see it, I wasn’t facing the direction where it landed, but I sure saw it on the early newscasts on the 16th starting at 6 a.m. I vaguely remember hearing whoops coming from the street below around 10 p.m. when it happened, but we have a lot of bars around the Capitol Square, and I tend to tune out anything coming from that direction. One would have thought that from the excitement, everyone had had a close encounter of the third kind, but they hadn’t. It was close enough.

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The latest from the Chicago Tribune has the Field Museum sending at least four scientists to the area where the meteorite landed:

Following a fireball that lit up the night sky and a sonic boom that rattled houses over a large swath of the Midwest on Wednesday night, another phenomenon is arriving in southwestern Wisconsin: meteorite hunters.

Paul Sipiera, adjunct curator of the Field Museum’s Pritzker Center for Meteoritics and Polar Studies, plans to lead a team of four investigators to Grant County on Friday, and other meteorite hunters are expected to descend on the area too.

“What we will try to do is coordinate eyewitnesses who saw the fireball and pinpoint its trajectory, then get word out to farmers to get them to be on the lookout for strange rocks,” said Sipiera, whose Planetary Studies Foundation, based in Galena, Ill., buys meteorites for the Field Museum collection.

By Thursday night, no discovery of meteor fragments had been reported, but if they are found, far more meteorite hunters will likely pour into the area, Sipiera said. Luckily, he said, it is plowing time, and if larger meteorites buried themselves as they fell into fields, they will be exposed with plowing.

Sipiera’s wife, Diane, screening calls to the foundation on Thursday from potential hunters, said she heard from people as far away as England.

“I would guess there are meteorite hunters and dealers boarding airplanes all over the country this morning, heading for Wisconsin,” said Mark Hammergren, an Adler Planetarium astronomer who studies asteroids, the primitive small planetoids from which most meteors originate.

A meteorite is a surviving fragment of a disintegrating, fiery meteor as it plunges from outer space through the Earth’s atmosphere. Because they are primitive pieces of the early days of the 4.5-million-year-old solar system, they are prized by scientists and collectors. Hundreds of meteorite fragments landing in south suburban Park Forest in 2003 were worth an estimated $500,000.

A half-million ducats?

This is almost like a gold rush, minus guys that look like grizzled prospectors with a miner’s pan. None of these cats look like Gabby Hayes, though. And Ruben Garcia is one of those also caught up in the meteorite rush.

When Ruben Garcia saw video of the meteorite that streaked across the Wisconsin sky on Wednesday night, it might as well have been the bat signal.

The professional meteorite hunter, known to many as Mr. Meteorite, was in his car the next day, driving from his home in Phoenix, bound for Iowa County to look for every chunk of that meteorite he could find.

Working with other professional meteorite hunters, the search for chunks of extraterrestrial rock near Livingston, Mifflin and Linden has been fruitful, but should be much better based on the size of the rock that came screaming out of the sky.

“One kilogram of total weight is ridiculous,” he said Sunday, referring to the sum of the meteorite fragments that have been found so far. “There’s got to be pounds of it out there.”

And many are out there looking – amateurs and professionals alike. John Valley, professor of geochemistry at UW-Madison, said Sunday that Geology Museum director Rich Slaughter has a search team in the field […]. He said the Geology Museum will probably put six or more meteorite fragments on display this week.

Private meteorite hunters such as Garcia, even though they are in business for profit, are not necessarily at odds with researchers, Valley said.

“At its best it is a symbiotic relationship,” he said. And meteorites can be hard to find, he said, so the more eyes that are on the ground, the better.

Especially the University of Wisconsin in Madison is looking for hunters to offer up their fragments for examination and study. If anything, scientists would clarify whether it’s indeed a fragment from outer space or merely an earth bound stone, and contribute to its ultimate value to hunters.

“Previous to today there are only 12 known meteorites found in Wisconsin,” said John Valley, a professor in the Department of Geoscience at the university. He was in a hurry on Friday morning because two small fragments had already been found west of Madison and his colleagues were about to put one into an electron microscope.

Not only is the meteorite part of the state’s history, he said, but scientists are very interested in learning more about the solar system. These meteorite pieces are 4.6 billion years old, as old as the solar system and older than any rock which can be found on Earth, he said.

Several pounds of meteorite pieces may be scattered across southern Wisconsin. Where they fell depends on which way the meteorite was traveling. Some reports said it was moving east to west, another west to east, Valley said.

It did pass over Madison and was filmed breaking up about that time, he said. Smaller fragments would drop to the ground first while larger fragments would fly farther.

Well, there probably won’t be a molten fragment as large as the space ship that bought Superman here in the 1930s, but it sure will be interesting to see all these people descending on little Livingston farming country (and Iowa, too) and them for a hot minute, and probably getting into some overheated fights over space rocks. Some are stumbling on them by simply checking their roofs, though.

Some Hollywood wag is bound to make a movie out of this. Watch.

I’m sure some others were also cracking open their bibles thinking the end times had come when the meteorite streaked across the sky and hit terra firma, but no, people. Back it up. The universe is alive. When something really, truly happens, we’ll know. Besides, I read somewhere that some scientists had already projected meteor showers for this part of the country at this time, and Madison’s due for some cyclical showers later on this summer. Of course, it’s no big deal unless one comes down like fireworks like the one we had last Wednesday night.

John Maniaci, professor at the Department of Geology and Geophysics at UW Madison, has a suggestion:

If you’re out this weekend and find what looks like a piece of meteorite, the folks at the UW Geology Museum would like to know. The museum is at 1215 W. Dayton St. in Madison, and the phone number to call is (608) 262-1412. But first you may want to look at the university’s meteorite Web page, which can help you determine what you’ve found. The address is: http://www.geology.wisc.edu/~museum/meteorite.html

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~ by blksista on April 18, 2010.

 
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